The won­der stuff

How re­mas­ter­ing Won­der Boy III gave Omar Cor­nut new ad­mi­ra­tion for the 8bit era


How one man’s love of the 8bit era saw Won­der Boy III re­made

“We’ve prob­a­bly made 1,000 changes, but I wanted to make them know­ingly, never ac­ci­den­tally”

The Sega Mas­ter Sys­tem’s equiv­a­lent of Zelda and Su­per Metroid was 1989’s Won­der Boy III: The Dragon’s Trap. Deep, com­plex and full of mys­tery, this RPG-in­flected plat­former was on every owner’s radar – in­clud­ing that of Paris­based Omar Cor­nut, who went on to work as a pro­gram­mer at UK stu­dio Me­dia Molecule on Tear­away and Dreams, at Q-Games on the Pix­elJunk se­ries, and co-cre­ated the rather spe­cial Soul Bub­bles on DS. In his spare time he’s cul­ti­vated a grow­ing ob­ses­sion for the Mas­ter Sys­tem into run­ning SMS Power, one of its prin­ci­pal fan web­sites, and has now es­tab­lished a new stu­dio, Lizard­cube, to re­make its killer app with a beau­ti­ful new graph­i­cal style – al­beit one that can be re­stored to its1989 state at the touch of a sin­gle but­ton. Why did you choose to re­make Won­der Boy III? It was the over­lap of me lov­ing this game, think­ing there would be some peo­ple who would like it, and me be­ing in­ter­ested in 8bit his­tory, preser­va­tion and em­u­la­tion. I wrote a Mas­ter Sys­tem em­u­la­tor al­most 20 years ago and I’ve been writ­ing the de­fin­i­tive web­site for Sega Mas­ter Sys­tem stuff. So it’s a lon­grun­ning ob­ses­sion. When I left Me­dia Molecule I wanted to start my own com­pany, and I re­alised de­sign­ing your own game is su­per tough. I won’t say it was a cop-out, but I wanted to make an easy game in terms of de­sign, so I thought a re­make would be a good way to achieve that, a prag­matic way of learn­ing the ropes of mak­ing a busi­ness. But in the end, it was twice the amount of work that we ex­pected in the be­gin­ning. Was re­verse-en­gi­neer­ing the car­tridge part of why it’s taken so much work? When I started I only had the ROM im­age of the game, so I started re­verse en­gi­neer­ing the data and its struc­ture. I wanted to find out if there were any se­crets left in the game that I didn’t know about. It’s a game known for hav­ing many sub­tle se­crets, like a spe­cific en­emy that some­times drops some­thing dif­fer­ent; there are lots of weird rules and it feels very mys­te­ri­ous. Even­tu­ally I got far enough that I could dis­play lev­els with my tools and my plan evolved from re­verse en­gi­neer­ing to in­tend­ing to port every bit of the game. But half­way through it be­came very painful be­cause it was very er­ror-prone, so now it’s like I’m em­u­lat­ing the base layer but I have free­dom over it so I can do what I want with­out hav­ing to bother about the lim­i­ta­tions of the Mas­ter Sys­tem. It’s this Franken­stein’s mon­ster: it’s em­u­lated, but it’s not. The orig­i­nal Mas­ter Sys­tem game is 30Hz, so I had to patch all the hun­dreds of bits of code that use physics and count the time. I also have to make mon­sters and ob­jects alive out­side of the orig­i­nal 4:3 area. I don’t think it’s been done to this level. There’s a com­pany called M2 in Ja­pan, which is be­hind the Sega 3D Clas­sics se­ries, and they’re do­ing some­thing of this kind, where they’re start­ing with a game and hack­ing it, but they change very lit­tle. How are you de­cid­ing what you can change from the orig­i­nal game? There’s no clear rule, but we don’t want to mess up the game too much while we’re im­prov­ing it in many ways. We’ve prob­a­bly made 1,000 changes; some are big, some are small and sub­tle, but I wanted to make them know­ingly, never ac­ci­den­tally. When we add new an­i­ma­tions we have to al­ter the tim­ing, the col­li­sion boxes. We’re adding some bonuses, tweak­ing a lot of things, adding se­crets. It’s 80 per cent the same game. How sim­ple was it to make the Retro mode, in which you can in­stantly flip the graph­ics to the orig­i­nal 8bit pix­els? It comes from the fact the game we’re mak­ing is very close to the orig­i­nal, ex­cept we’re us­ing a lot of vis­ual tricks to hide that it’s tile-based. When the game was orig­i­nally em­u­lated, the 8bit ver­sion was run­ning by de­fault and you could vis­ually ren­der the two ver­sions, but the 8bit ver­sion had a lot of bugs be­cause it wasn’t de­signed for widescreen. As I added new data and graph­ics the HD ver­sion steadily di­verged. But be­cause the same fun­da­men­tal game is run­ning, it’s all just vi­su­als. Were you sur­prised by any of the pro­gram­ming tech­niques that made the orig­i­nal game work? It was a way for me to un­der­stand how games used to be made. It was driven by the pro­gram­ming con­straints of the time, the CPU and the RAM. For ex­am­ple, we’re mak­ing a hard mode and as we added en­e­mies and tweaked lay­outs we re­alised how as soon as you move some­thing by five pix­els, you re­alise it can’t work be­cause the way it was coded wouldn’t al­low for it; this mon­ster only works when the ground is flat be­cause they couldn’t code in col­li­sion for spe­cific ob­jects, things like that. Op­ti­mi­sa­tion tricks like that are in­ter­est­ing, and through them you un­der­stand the dif­fer­ences be­tween old games and new ones.

Omar Cor­nut made 2008’s SoulBub­bles with artist Ben Ruiz, who is also be­hind the art for Won­derBoyIII

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